In 2010, Google estimated that there are about 129,864,880 books in the world. But for some in New York, access to this monumental collection might by curtailed significantly, to around 77.
That’s according to NYC Books Through Bars, a collective that sends books to prisoners in the New York State Prison system for free but might soon face restrictions under a new pilot program in New York state prisons.
The program, called Directive 4911A, would restrict people outside of prisons from sending individualized care packages, including books and fresh food, to New York’s estimated 60,000 state prisoners. Family and friends would instead be forced to purchase pre-approved packages from just six vendors, as of Monday.
The state says this move will increase prison safety by reducing contraband. But activists contend it could have a negative effect on mental health and recidivism amongst prisoners, especially for those in solitary confinement.
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“We believe that education is a fundamental human right, just like food and water,” Amy Peterson, a member of Books Through Bars for the past five years, told Global Citizen. “I don't think it’s in anyone’s interest to keep books out of prison.”
According to Books Through Bars, the selection of books at the initial five approved vendors included five romance novels, 11 how-to books, 14 religious texts, 21 puzzle books, 24 coloring books, as well as one dictionary and one thesaurus.
It’s not just access to books that will be affected by the new regulation, which is currently being piloted at three state prisons, but could be adapted statewide by September.
Family members will also be barred from sending fresh fruit and vegetables to their loved ones behind bars, the Marshall Project, which produces investigative reporting on the US prison system, reports.
The approved companies are Access Securepak, E-Ford Commissary, Union Supply Group, Jack L. Marcus Company, and Walkenhorst — which, according to another report from the Marshall Project, are often able to profit mightily off these sales. They produce pocketless sweatpants, hermetically-sealed food packages, and other tamper-proof items for sale, often above market price.
For many people, access to books and personalized care packages can have a positive impact both inside and out of prison.
“Packages and food are ways that people can find comfort to remind themselves that they’re human,” Caroline Hsu, an attorney with the Prisoners’ Rights Project of the Legal Aid Society, told the Marshall Project. “Taking those away tells people they’re not worth anything.”
Access to books in particular is critical for inmates. While an estimated 70% of prisoners in the US read at or below a 4th grade level, studies have shown that prisoners who receive an education in prison are 43% less likely to return to prison than those who don’t.
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“A lot of people write to us asking for books to pass the time, which in itself is a good enough reason, but we also get requests from people wanting to learn how to start a small business, learn how to farm, learn a language,” Peterson said.
“We get a lot of letters from people who are in solitary confinement, and having a book in solitary is what keeps them sane,” she added.
New York isn’t the only state limiting access to books for prisoners.
Two prisons in its southern neighbor, New Jersey, reportedly banned the book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” the Intercept reports — leading the American Civil Liberties Union to file a Open Public Records Act request.
Advocates say Directive 4911A also violates the constitutional right to free speech, and according to Peterson, at least one firm in New York has retained counsel, meaning it could sue the state for infringements on the First Amendment.
The pilot program began in three prisons — Greene, Taconic and Green Haven Correctional Facilities — this month, according to the Marshall Project. Activists are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and Acting Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci to rescind the directive, but as of now the program is slated to extend to all prisons this Fall.